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Gardens by the Bay,Singapore: Bridging the Cultural Gap in a Multinational Project Team

This article is an abridged version of a paper written by Chung Choon San, Managing Director of PM Link. PM Link comes under the umbrella of CPG Corporation, and has over 20 years of experience in managing a wide spectrum of large, complex, multi-phased and fast-track building and infrastructure projects. The featured image shows the project under construction in July 2011. (Image source: Fieldafar)
Gardens by the bay,Singapore

Most project management textbooks and handbooks provide very detailed and useful information on the processes, methodology and technical skills needed for effective project management, but little is said on the subject of project management across different cultures. Yet, this is frequently a major cause of delays and budget overruns in projects involving international project teams of consultants, contractors and suppliers. I would like to share our project management experience with the Gardens by the Bay project,Singapore, which brought together a diverse group of consultants from the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and Germany, by highlighting some of the issues that we encountered along the way.

People from different countries may have problems understanding each other, even if we all speak English. Over the years, Singaporeans have developed a local slang broadly termed as “Singlish”, in which certain English words have become corrupted through usage. A simple example is the word “gostan”, which is actually the words “go astern”, but because of the natives’ tendency to swallow words when speaking, “go astern” became “gostan”. To add to the confusion, certain words from the three major races in Singapore (Chinese, Malay and Indian) are mixed into sentences spoken in English. For example, “Let’s go for makan” – makan is the Malay word for eat and what the local is saying is, “Let’s go for a meal”.

Singaporeans are also known for their propensity to use acronyms. For example, a foreigner arriving in Singapore and asking for directions to reach the Land Transport Authority’s Headquarters will probably be told: “As you leave the airport, travel along the ECP and take the turn to the PIE. Along the PIE look for the turn off to the CTE, take it and go left into Bukit Timah Road. Look out for KKH on your left. LTA is on the left when you pass the traffic light junction after KKH.” In this project, we actually had to prepare a table of commonly used acronyms for our counterparts from the UK, Australia, Germany and Japan.

Cultural & Background Differences
Team members with different cultural backgrounds, languages, practices, norms, etc. inevitably had different perspectives on how things should be done. Some overseas consultants were operating in Singapore for the first time, and were unfamiliar with our tax system and the process of securing a work permit to allow their representatives to be stationed in Singapore for prolonged periods of time. We often served as an intermediary between the different parties to help them understand the situation and offer possible solutions.

The multitude of issues arising from cultural differences should not be underestimated in the day-to-day running of the project. Extra effort is required to achieve understanding amongst team members, and diplomacy and patience is needed in order to balance competing demands. These demands can create tremendous tension, if they are not well handled. As project manager, we were sometimes called upon to act as mediator between local and overseas consultants, and also to facilitate decision making. In these situations, we always strived to develop a win-win situation for the project and the parties involved.

Differences in Work Processes, Procurement Approaches & Contractual Arrangements
The Gardens by the Bay project is a government-funded project. As such, the procurement process must strictly follow public procurement rules, which emphasize due process and transparency at all times. For example, all tenderers have to be treated equally and given the same information for tender, with no room for negotiations of any sort. Our UK counterparts on the other hand, were used to a system where consultants frequently engaged in discussions with specific contractors and developed design solutions in consultation with these contractors, who then go on to tender for the works. During and after the tender process, it was considered normal for the UK consultants to further engage the tenderers and even negotiate directly with a preferred tenderer to arrive at an agreed price. This is a “no-no” for government tenders in Singapore.

Another gap that had to be bridged was our overseas consultants’ understanding of what the local contractors were able to achieve in terms of quality of work, and the skill levels available in Singapore. Compared to Europe and America, projects in Singapore are relatively labour intensive, with unskilled foreign workers providing the bulk of the work force. For example, fair-faced bricks commonly used in the UK are not used in Singapore because bricklayers here are simply not as skilled as those in the UK.

Localising Designs
Adapting design concepts from our overseas consultants to local weather conditions is critical in achieving a design that not only looks good, but works well in our equatorial climate, which is characterised by year-round high temperatures, high humidity, and very heavy rainfall. I have personally seen several designs by prominent overseas architects that had to be modified after completion to cope with the heavy seasonal monsoon rains.

Another aspect of localising design is to ensure that local code and statutory requirements are identified and factored into the design at the early stages. There were several instances where overseas consultants assumed that what was deemed acceptable in their own countries could similarly be applied in Singapore, only to find out during the authority submission stage that the design would have to be modified to such an extent that the original design intent had to be compromised.

To ensure that the design intent is maintained, foreign and local consultants must respect one other’s professionalism and work closely together in developing the design. This does not always happen, and quite frequently the approach taken by overseas and local partners is for the overseas partner to complete the design up to schematic design stage, and then hand over the design to the local partner to detail and implement.

No project is without its problems and challenges. The experience we gained from the Gardens by the Bay project is to be mentally prepared for differences that we know exist, to adopt as systematic an approach to problem-solving as possible, and to communicate, communicate and communicate. Approaching each challenge with an open mind, a willingness to listen to all parties involved and finally, to be prepared to try new ways of doing things also helped a great deal towards achieving consensus and cooperation amongst all team members.

So far, we have found the project management of the Gardens by the Bay project a challenging, but very enriching journey. Not only were we able to apply our own tested methods of project management, we were also able to leverage our experience to adapt our project management processes to new situations, like running an international design competition and managing international consultants. We learnt to be flexible and adaptable, to customize our procedures to ensure that they were workable with both local and overseas consultants. We also learnt how to partner multinational teams from different parts of the world, and to communicate and coordinate cross-culturally, cross-distance and cross-time zones. This project has provided us the opportunity to exercise our ability to handle personal relationships between parties with disparate backgrounds and experiences, to enable them to work well together. It is trust and respect, won through mutual respect for one other’s technical competencies; integrity and humility, instead of coercion or contractual compulsion, that helped encourage the various parties to go the extra mile, and to work with us to achieve the projects’ objectives.

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